Friday, December 26, 2008

Candle Night Update

Candle Night is an increasingly popular opportunity for people to get together, turn off the electrical appliances and see things in a different light -- candlelight. So I did that on the eve of the Winter Solstice, conveniently near Christmas that it could also be a chance to have stollen and cookies and party-like food and wine and give people little gifts, as well as an opportunity to have a break from hectic Tokyo life.
I got nice gifts too, and wine and big, sweet strawberries and most of a handmade gateau chocola dusted with powdered sugar and lit by little Santa and snowman candles. We agreed that a dozen people is pretty much the maximum number of people who can occupy the place at one time, especially during a feeding frenzy when everyone is holding a lighted candle. But a pleasant time was had by all. I recommend that.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Holiday Mood

Yes, it is gradually beginning to look a lot like Christmas. No snow in Tokyo, although it is snowing waay south of us in Fukuoka, for instance, and up north in the ski areas, which must make those folks happy.
At least I have the tree up, and some additional Christmas-ish decorations, and I threw a little party with the basic Thanksgiving menu:
Roast turkey and my secret oyster-liver stuffing
baked ham with honey-mustard glaze
mashed garlic potatoes
orange-cinnamon yams
almond green beans
deviled eggs, pickled beets
cranberry-walnut-orange Jell-O with mini marshmallows
raspberry-strawberry salad
pumpkin pie
graham cracker-custard pie with merengue
apple spice-walnut-date cake
egg nog ice cream (with rum instead of bourbon)
And the early arrival guests helped me bake the chocolate chip-pecan cookies.
If you are in the neighborhood, we will be observing Candle Night. It is supposed to be on Dec. 21 this time, to mark the winter solstice, but so many people have to work, including me, so it will be a day early to allow for rest time. Since Japan does not treat Christmas as a holiday (The nearest holiday is Dec. 23, the emperor's birthday), we have to make do with what we've got, right?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Fish Quiche

OK, I have caved in. I thought I could hold out until Thanksgiving to dig out the Christmas decorations, and I guess technically I am, because today is Labor Thanksgiving in Japan, which is about as close as Japan gets to expressing a feeling about something by a holiday.
So I am getting into to cold-weather food mode. The picture is of a spinach-salmon quiche. It is salmon season here, so I could find fairly cheap salmon fillets (watching out for the bones, of course), and spinach is in season, so I could get a bunch (meaning an armful for next to nothing. Probably the cheese was the biggest expense.
I cheated on the pie crust by using a mix, but it's really not hard to make a simple crust either way (the long way is flour, a pinch of salt, shortening and a bit of ice water. Prebake the crust. That only takes about 10 minutes at 350F (160C).
When I make a quiche, I use a block of cheese. Any kind works, depending on the flavor you want. I used Gouda this time, shredding a generous cupful.
Poach the salmon in a little white wine. This is to separate skin and bones from the edible part more easily. I then flake the meat, let it cool and stir in with the shredded cheese. I am not sure how much spinach was involved in its raw state, but I rinsed it, put it in a container and microwaved it at 900W for 50 seconds. This, I am told, helps keep up to 90 percent of the vitamins. Blanching (basically dumping boiling water over it) retains about 70 percent, while boiling the spinach leaves only about 30 percent of the vitamins.
Anyway, I wound up with enough spinach that, wheen squeezed and chopped, it yielded about a cup. I added fresh basil, Italian parsley, rosemary, chervil, oregano, thyme, whole rose peppercorns, ground black pepper, a dash of nutmet and stirred all that together with the spinach, cheese and salmon.
Separately, I beat four eggs into a frenzy, added a cup and a half of fresh cream (don't use fake cream. Quiche is not about counting calories). Beat that again so it is a bit thick. A blender can deal with this nicely, but beating by hand, although tiring, lets you see the consistency best.
Stir the egg-cream mixture into the spinach/fish/herb stuff, then spread it over the baked pie shell. Sprinkle a little paprika over the top to add color. Bake at 375F (180F) for about 30 minutes.
It's pretty good stuff and good any time, for example with a salad and a little Chardonay as a simple supper, or warmed over at breakfast (if there is any left).
I had mine for brunch with more coffee while digging out the Christmas decorations. And what I consider Thanksgiving is still a few days away. Can I hold off until then? Stay tuned.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Season Change

The cicadas didn't try so hard this year, and very quickly their chatter was overtaken by the crickets, and now, even though it is not really cold in Tokyo, the ducks and various seabirds are practicing takeoffs and landings in the river outside my window, preparing for their journey to presumably warmer places.
The menu, which is probably more a part of my life now than it was even a few years ago, is also more attuned to cool weather. We had a Halloween fest with chili and polo loco, for example, and this weekend -- this post is being posted on Culture Day -- was different kinds of comfort food. Yesterday was German--roast pork and onions and potatoes, beets and red cabbage kraut, white asparagus (out of season here, but it must be Spring in Chile, where this came from) and a nice 2007 Riesling. Today was three kinds of curry -- mutton, spinach and chicken keema -- with nan and kashmiri rice (saffron, cloves and raisins jazz it up a bit), with lassi and a coconut milk-tapioca-cinnamon concoction after to help put out the fire. This feels like a good night for hot chocolate with little bitty marshmallows. No fireplace here, but that would be a nice touch. It's not cold enough to turn on the heaters yet, but it is definitely good sleeping weather with an extra blanket. Six o clock comes awfully early in the morning!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Semi-Holiday Season

It's Halloween time again, almost, which means Christmas can't be far behind, almost.
Seriously, I used to explain Halloween to Japanese friends as something like Obon or the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, in which people show respect for elders and departed relatives by visiting their graves or welcoming the spirits with lanterns and symbolic settings of food from the recent harvest.
Times have changed.
Now, Halloween here is pretty much the same as in the U.S., with costumes and Jack-o-Lanterns, but not quite up to the trick-or-treat practice yet, although I expect that will change too before long.
Of course I remember when the start of the school year was pretty much timed to the World Series, and we pegged Thanksgiving with football season. And hockey was not even recognized south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Well, times change, of course, and customs change too. So we have the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and a baseball season that pretty much melds into basketball season without even a football season break for spring training.
And Trick-or-Treat, not Thanksgiving, heralds the start of the Christmas shopping season. Yep. Tokyo stores put up the Christmas stuff about the same time they take down the pumpkins. Both are borrowed customs used as merchandising ploys. Maybe global warming has something to do with it?

Monday, September 29, 2008

..and now, the weather

You may remember the disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow, in which a climatologist tries to convince politicians to prepare for catastrophic global weather. Of course they don't listen soon enough, and Los Angeles gets sucked up in hurricanes, most of the New York Public Library goes up in smoke, and the northern hemisphere is pretty much engulfed in a new ice age.
Well, Japan, where I sit, is on the leading edge of f=the 15th typhoon of the season. The Accuweather satellite image above doesn't show the eye formation of this typhoon, but more recent images on the U.S. Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center site show that Jangmi is a biggie, with wind gusting above 120 miles an hour and waves 20 or more feet high as it makes a sharp right and heads for Japan's bigger islands tomorrow or...ahem....the day after.
Having lived here awhile, I have experienced typhoons that, fortunately, have not been deadly in my personal neighborhood. Apart from downpour rain and wind gusts that leave umbrella skeletons all over, we've been fortunate. But a storm this big and this powerful is a reminder of what the forces of nature can do when messed with by the forces of people.
I'm always a little surprised that people who have survived a disastrous storm like Hurricane Katrina will try to go surfing in such weather, or go out to the shoreline and have some drinks while the storm rages. It's a quirky thing about humans that having survived one calamity makes us bolder in the face of others.
Maybe I am going soft in old age, but I think it is better to keep your head down and, when someone with more weather expertise than me says be careful, I am careful.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Back to Reality

Since I am not a serious TV fan, I have so far avoided "reality television," but I recently returned to earth from a pleasant but busy vacation -- the first in at least six years. During that time, I saw my daughter off to college, turned 65, and made at least a couple of life-changing decisions.
The life-changing decisions, like life itself, will come to pass in their own good time, but you could count the time on one hand, if you are keeping track.
Meanwhile, I want to hold on to what's left of that vacation mood as long as possible. I made a wish, blew out the candle, and have already started making these things happen. I hope you have something like that going too.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Journey So Far

Life is a journey, not a destination, according to many people who have gone this route before. I agree, because there are plenty of things to be learned, and the process of discovery is always a kick, no matter where we are. I know that ultimately, we alone are responsible for what happens, but it is nice to share the trip with someone, and I've finally found my traveling companion. She is the lady who agrees that we shouldn't be afraid to take risks and to not race through life so fast that I forget where I've been or where I'm going.
So the approach of 65 doesn't deter me at all. I can see more clearly, with this helpful advice: Do not give up while you still have something to give. Do not shut the door on love by saying it is impossible to find. Do not give up your dreams.
Sounds like words to live by. Like Edgar A. Guest's ''My Creed,''
My Creed
To live as gently as I can;
To be, no matter where, a man;
To take what comes of good or ill,
And cling to faith and honor still;
To do my best, and let that stand
The record of my brain and hand;
And then, should failure come to me,
Still work and hope for victory.
To have no secret place wherein
I stoop unseen to shame or sin;
To be the same when I'm alone
As when my every deed is known;
To live undaunted, unafraid
Of any step that I have made;
To be without pretense or sham
Exactly what men think I am.

To leave some simple work behind
To keep my having lived in mind;
If enmity to aught I show,
To be an honest, generous foe;
To play my little part, nor whine
That greater honors are not mine.
This I believe is all I need
For my philosophy and creed.


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Summer Food

Summer brings out a craving for barbecue, which can still be good, even when you're up on the sixth floor and nowhere near a charcoal pit. I faked it for the Independence Day gathering simply by marinating the chicken and the pork spareribs overnight in garlic, lemon juice and beer. The sauce is a combination of things but includes brown sugar to give a little glaze as the meat cooks, plus a smoky-flavored sake vinegar I found. Another preparation technique here is corn on the cob, cooked in milk. It brings out the sweetness, and provides a flavor hit for people who like butter but don't really want the cholesterol that goes with it. We are supposedly going through a butter shortage in Japan now, too, so the absence of butter is a reminder of how cooks learn to improvise.
If you look closely at the salad, you could see it is all herbal, plus seafood, marinated overnight also in white wine, garlic, oregano, basil and different kinds of pepper, plus a little olive oil. The salad also has black olives, roasted garlic, tomatoes, red bell pepper, shiso leaves and two kinds of edible flowers.
Desserts are pumpkin pie, as in the Thanksgiving kind, and a red-white-and-blue fruit pie that is simply raspberries, blueberries and mini marshmallows in whipped cream, poured into a baked pie shell and refrigerated. It was a relatively uncomplicated menu, and what with doggy bags, no worries about leftovers.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Death of a Terrorist

The United Nations General Assembly decided late last year that the death penalty ``undermines human dignity.'' Duh! Of course in a perfect world, justice would be certain that people convicted of capital crimes are truly guilty of them. Because murder and rape also undermine human dignity, and the United Nations General Assembly has managed to look the other way far too many times in cases of the most fundamental abuses of human dignity imaginable. Let's put genocide on the list, for example.
Well-intentioned opponents of the death penalty often have not sat face-to-face, as I have, with convicted murderers condemned to die and asked them why they did what got them into that situation. I hope those folks, and others not so sure about the issue one way or another, will get a chance to know more about what they are against before being so set against it.
Japan, China, the U.S. and about 50 other countries have a death penalty for capital crimes. The United Nations notion on seeking a moratorium on executions is that there is no evidence that executing criminals has any deterrent value to dissuade others from similarly heinous crimes. Maybe so.
It is also arguably true that not all the people who kill each other do so with cold-blooded, malicious intent. Humans are very complex people. Murder in a fit of rage or passion is still murder, though, and if a person comes unhinged in a moment of rage or passion once, how can we know that won't happen again?
So, for better or worse, the death penalty removes from society some people with murderous intent (and the proven ability to exercise it).
The reason more people are not executed for killing other people is often that they repent, clearly understanding the enormity of what they've done, and their punishment is knowing in their hearts that they have done something terrible to another human being, often wrecking the lives of others in the process. That's a heavy weight to carry. Execution at least has a certain finality to it.
I do not like the idea of people killing other people under any circumstances. I wish people would be nicer to each other. I am among those who used to believe that the death penalty was wrong and useless too, and as a young reporter covering murder trials, I often felt that people found guilty of crimes that called for the death penalty might not have been guilty -- the old ``reasonable doubt'' concept.
Once in awhile, however, and increasingly as I get older and perhaps more cynical and tired of the crap that slick lawyers pull in criminal trials and the stupidity of their colleagues who sit in judgment of capital crime cases, I realize that the death penalty is not only not a bad idea, but actually well-deserved in many cases.
One such case was settled yesterday with the execution in Japan (Japan hangs people) of a pervert named Tsutomu Miyazaki. He was hanged for the abduction and murder of four girls between the ages of 4 and 7 between August 1988 and June 1989. His case dragged on for years as lawyers sought to prove Miyazaki was mentally unfit to understand his criminal responsibility.
Miyazaki was a loner and a misfit who lived in a two-room outbuilding he shared with his younger sister, apart from his family's house. He had stacks and stacks of porn video tapes. He had a moderate physical disability in that his arms were somewhat shorter than would be normal for a person of his build, and that might have made him unattractive to women or maybe unable to masturbate or something. For whatever reason, he seduced little girls, got them into his car and drove them down country roads where he stripped them, used them for sex, then killed them. He hacked up the body of at least one little girl, burned the pieces and buried her bones in the garden.
Miyazaki was not a nice man. He deserved to die. I am only sorry it took so long, and that he didn't have the benefit of fear, rape, torture and dismemberment before the noose.
Japan's death penalty comes under criticism for the way it is carried out, too. Amnesty International doesn't like the idea that the people on death row don't know when they will hang, and relatives and other interested parties don't know either until a notice is posted on the prison bulletin board the day of the event. These notices are monitored by a committee of lawyers who oppose the death penalty, as they exercise Japan's judicial appeal process. So in the case of the Miyazaki execution, the public found out about it and two other executions the same day. The little kids he killed did not have any chance to psychologically prepare themselves for death. They were too young to understand what was going on anyway, so even if he had told them his intentions, they probably would not have understood. Miyazaki did have the advantage of knowing he would hang, and lacked only the certainty of when. So he died without the element of terrorism he inflicted upon his victims.
And make no mistake about it, to a murder victim, there is nothing more terrifying than realizing you are going to die. A person being hanged has a few seconds to twitch in agony, but there is no evidence that this does anything toward helping him realize the enormity of his crime.
If you haven't formed an opinion on the issue, I'll let Amnesty International express its views, in fairness. Their Web site discusses their position here:
Since this is MY blog, however, I would say again that, although the death penalty is undeniably a denial of the killer's human rights, it is no more or less complete than the denial of human rights of the murder victim.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Loners, Losers, Killers

It would be nice if Japanese people and people who are seriously fond of Japan would be more realistic in their appraisals. These folks have good intentions, I'm sure, but they tend to give a misimpression of Japan, when in fact it is a country populated by all kinds of people. Most are good, honest, law-abiding, basically nice, or at least not-so-bad folks. Some, however, are not (as is true of any other country I know of, which is why I am posting this bleat).
One of the not-nice people got lose recently in the shopping district of Akihabara, long known for its consumer electronics stores, and more recently for its Akiba Maid-san bars and similar cosplay outlets. Anyway, Akihabara has cleaned up in the past few years, with a nicer railway station area and access, somewhat better choices of places to eat, and other pleasantness, making it one of the major must-see stops for anyone passing through Japan, as well as all the Otaku who are regular clients.
Since this involves a criminal case still under investigation, I won't get into the detail too much, beyond pointing out that a 25-year-old part-time factory worker, feeling alienated and lonely and generally put-upon by society, decided to screw with the Wa by driving a truck into a crowd of Sunday strollers (the streets of Akihabara are blocked off on Sundays so people can walk about more easily), killing seven people and generally scaring the hell out of people.
The killer continued his spree by randomly slashing and stabbing people with knives, mostly attacking them from behind.
Police say the killer posted messages with his mobile phone, warning of his intentions and expressing his rage. Unfortunately, nobody picked up on these warnings until after the fact.
Gun-control advocates often point to Japan as a model of a safe society because of its strict controls on handguns and rigorous investigation of those who seek permits for hunting rifles and target pistols.
In reality, however, since handguns are generally maintained mostly by police and yakuza gangsters, the rest of society resorts to whatever else it can find to use as a weapon. This makes baseball bats, cutlery and umbrellas murder weapons. While the murder rate per capita in Japan is about 1.1 per 100,000 people compared with 8.7 per 100,000 in the U.S. (These are 20-year old numbers, but the ratio hasn't changed much), the deaths are more dramatic because they occur in a society that has been led to believe is safe.
Whatever you choose to believe about homogeneity and safety of the society and the law-abiding nature of people, I'd recommend keeping an eye out anyway, just in case.

(Learn more about Japan's crime rate from the government's official statistical database:

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Bye Bo

I saw him twice in concert. Saw his band's candyapple red 1950 Cadillac hearse (Bo Diddley and the B.O. Trio in gold script on the sides). Saw him at the Chess-Checker-Argo studios in Chicago when he barged in on a Chuck Berry recording session and jammed with him. Shonuf Bo Diddley's shave-and-a-hair-cut-two-bits beat influenced a lot of guitar players you will never hear or hear of, including me, as well as legends like Buddy Holly, the Rolling Stones, The Who... heck, even George Michael!
Rolling Stone magazine called his signature chugging on that custom Gretch cigar box ``The most plagiarized rhythm of the 20th century.''
However much he was troubled by the ripoffs and lack of respect or royalties he got in his lifetime, Bo Diddley's musical influence is undeniable. Maybe it was not a surprise that he died yesterday at the age of 79. but I'm sorry he's gone.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Food for Thought

(DISCLAIMER: My profile says I enjoy cooking, which is true. Some people doubt that or think it's strange. And to those people, I say ``Pish-tosh,'' or some other phrase that rhymes with ``duck shoe.'' In fact, I do enjoy cooking, and some other people enjoy my cooking too. So I am building a cookbook for my daughter that has some of the basic things people should know for survival cooking. I'll post a few entries here now and then.)

Roux-tine sauces begin with a base that is equal parts flour and oil or (arteries groan in protest) butter. The simplest would be a cup of all-purpose flour and a cup of vegetable oil. A heavy iron skillet is best for making roux (or for making anything that involves frying, I think.) Heat the oil and gradually add the flour, stirring constantly until the mixture turns brown and is a smooth texture. This may take about 20 minutes. Remove from heat. The trick is to brown the roux, but don't burn it, or it becomes too bitter to use.
Moving on from there, a more time-consuming roux is made with butter and an equal portion of mashed cooked carrot. Again, blend the butter and mashed carrot until brown.
Ethnic stuff? Sure. Indian curry roux starts with finely chopped onions, cooked with oil until smooth. This can take a lot of time, so a good curry base is usually made at least a day ahead. The same thing works with other ingredients, such as coconut powder and oil for Thai curry roux.
My cooking philosophy is that it is good to know how to make things from scratch. But in the interest of time and convenience (and available equipment), there's no need to spend all day preparing sauce bases by churning your own butter or grinding grain into flour and so on. Simple and delicious sauce bases can be made with canned or packaged soups and favorite herbs and spices. The beef stroganoff in the picture above is made with a basic flour-and-oil roux, to which I added beef and vegetable bouillon cubes, rosemary, thyme and pepper, and boiled down gradually adding milk. I sauté-ed an onion--chopped fine--and some garlic with sliced brown mushrooms, added thin-sliced beef sirloin, then blended it all with a splash of red wine and a tablespoon of sour cream and let it simmer for a half-hour.
Egg noodles? Sure, you can make them easily with 2 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour, two beaten eggs or the beaten yolks (only) of three eggs, a half-cup of milk and a tablespoon of butter. Mix it together with a pinch of salt and knead into a ball, roll thin on a floured surface and cut into strips. Let the strips dry at least three or four hours in open air.
Or you can buy a package of egg noodles and be ready for business in about 10 minutes!
Mango treats.
Ok, now if I say cream puffs and ice cream, you start thinking about calories and all that. True, but a mango (the Mexican ones are my favorite) is a great source of dietary fiber (helps you poop) and protein, plus other minerals and vitamins and foliate, which is an important acid for pregnant women (not that you need to be pregnant to eat mangos). So the dessert trio of choice is a cream puff filled with mango custard, served with a scoop of mango ice cream drizzled with a mango sauce, and slices of fresh mango with shredded coconut and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
Join me?
Learn more about the food values of fruits here:

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The March Hare Meets The Easter Bunny

Once upon a time--say 200 A.D.--Saxons celebrated a spring fertility ritual to honor the goddess Ostara, whose signature animal was the hare. We know, from Alice in Wonderland, that the March Hare is an unpredictable animal with a voice like Jerry Colona, so we shouldn't be surprised the March Hare would, at this time of the year (March) get confused in the minds of some people (Pagans, maybe) with the Easter Bunny.
People ask: If the Easter Bunny brings brightly colored eggs, what does the Easter Chicken bring? (batteries for the bunny)
Anyway, we mark Easter as a Christian holiday to honor the resurrection of Jesus. This year, the observance is on March 23, just a few days after the first day of Spring. From the proximity of the two, we can see how the early Christians could capitalize upon the prevailing Pagan practices and turn them into Christian practices. So we have the Easter Bunny. We also got the egg idea from even older Vernal festivals, in which the Romans and Greeks used eggs as symbols of fertility, rebirth and abundance (naturally). Eggs were all over the place in those days, because spring and fertility are naturally linked. The hare--be it the March Hare or the Easter Bunny, is often associated with moon goddesses (In Japan, the moon shows a bunny pounding rice into mochi.), so the egg and the rabbit are often pictured together in that context.
It seems fair to Pagans, Christians and basically anyone anticipating the arrival of spring to take this time to enjoy the changing of the season and a chance to see the world in a fresh light. I'll take my Easter Eggs over easy please.

(Learn more about Easter traditions here:

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Spams and Scams

I imagine you get these little messages as often as I do: bulk forwardings of homilies and inspirational messages, good-luck charms, ``thinking of you'' and so on. They are usually from well-meaning people on your e-mail list somewhere, and they are a lot less intrusive or potentially virus-laden than most of the other spam that clutters all our in-boxes.
I trash it anyway. Not because I am a Scrooge-like person, but because I stand with brave souls like John Ratliff and others who would like to reduce the amount of unnecessary e-mail we get.
I am sick to death of the scam offers from various widows and orphans of potentates in miserable African countries offering to send millions of dollars to my bank account. I don't need Viagra, thank you. My penis is good enough to get the job done, thank you. No, I don't need ringtones that only imbeciles can here. And so on, add nausea. (no, not ad nauseum)
Since most people don't actually write real letters or even send real cards any more, I wonder what ``friends'' are thinking when they forward chain friendship messages created by someone else. How original is that? I am careful who I call ``friend,'' so I like to think that my very few real friends know that I am thinking of them and know that I wish them well. Sometimes I actually write them or call them or say hi when I see them to reinforce those feelings. I don't send them chain mail.
Blogs are one way people can keep their friends up to speed on what's going on in their lives or what they think is interesting or useful or important enough to share. That's why I am writing this. It's why I hope you'll look at a site called , which discusses this crusade much more eloquently.
I also recommend, which gives some useful advice on ways to reduce unsolicited, unwanted or downright unnecessary e-mail messages.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Standin' at the Crossroads

Ariel, Meg and Robert Johnson made contracts with the Devil. The results were not always what they had in mind.

Lots of white folks, including me, have embraced the blues as a style of music. Of course the blues is more than that. It's a cultural heritage of the U.S. back when black folks had plenty to sing the blues about. So it's a lasting testament to a way of life for some, and the white folks who play blues are paying respect to it in their way.
When I was first learning to play the guitar, an old black piano player at a bar in my hometown called the Crossroads Cafe (next to the Erie & Lackawanna railroad line a couple of blocks from its crossing with the Pennsylvania and New York Central tracks) told me that to be a real musician, I had to not be afraid to ``bust out,'' and not just play music the way everyone else played it.
Black blues musicians I knew said that to play the blues, you need too have had many women, too much whiskey and too many heartbreaks from both. That's not easy for a skinny white 13-year-old guy. Even so, there was no shortage of advice, usually topped off with the reality that the best blues men (John Lee Hooker, Sun House, Howlin' Wolfe, Lightnin' Slim, Elmore James, B.B. King, and so on) were and are black. (That's not to take anything away from Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Ry Cooder, or Susan Tedeschi and Bonnie Raitt.)
So I among among the many who sought to learn more about the blues and where that music came from. I'll give you some links at the bottom of this so you can learn more too. Anyway, along the way, there was this ever-present and not entirely joking notion that if you want to be a truly great blues musician, you’d have to be willing to sell your soul to the devil. There's a long list of people who have paid such a dear price for something special. Even the Disney heroines Ariel (The Little Mermaid) and Meg (Hercules) sold out.
Maybe the best-known of the blues legends who are said to have made a pact with the devil is Robert Johnson.
Robert Leroy Johnson was born in the Mississippi Delta, right down there in the blue gum country along with the blues that sustained him through his all-too-brief 27-year lifespan. Keith Richards is among many musicians who have said there would be no rock 'n' roll without the blues, and Johnny Winter, Jimi Hendrix, Greg and Duane Allman, Neil Young, John Fogerty, and many others who made it in the world of rock are just a few of a great many musicians whose guitar style, singing style and whole approach to music were influenced by Johnson. Eric Clapton, who has a tribute album of Johnson’s songs in his discography (Me and Mr. Johnson, in 2004), called Johnson “The most important blues musician who ever lived.” And even though Johnson was long dead before there was ever a Rolling Stone magazine, he ranked fifth in its list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.
So, yeah, Johnson had talent. We don't have much to go on. He recorded just 29 songs in two sessions, including 12 alternate takes. And the notion that he knew the devil comes out in six of them. It isn't surprising that the notion that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil (not necessarily the biblical Satan, but more likely the African-voodoo trickster devil Legba). And this is the theme of Crossroads, a short, very good but not widely appreciated Walter Hill movie that features Tim Russ as Johnson, Joe Seneca as his friend Poor Willie Brown, and an Academy Award-nominated soundtrack composed and played by Ry Cooder and performed by him and Steve Vai, who played both parts of a musical duel that I would rather you see and hear than have me tell you about.
( ), (Sonny Terry did the harmonica parts for Seneca). Ralph Macchio (the Karate Kid) and Jami Gertz are in it, and although Macchio didn't actually play the duel with Steve Vai, he did go through the fingering in a nearly accurate note-for-note simulation. (

If you have a little time, take a walk down to the Crossroads yourself and see what this blues is all about. You can get more about Robert Johnson here:

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Headlines Imperil Clarity

As the Internet increasingly becomes the medium 'o' choice for information, the newsmongering industry ought to look anew at the way it calls attention to what we old hacks call news. Headlines are not what they used to be when typography mattered.
Tabloid headlines used to be built with type big enough to fill the width of the page, thus giving us such gems as
And broadsheet newspapers are typically designed with the most prominent story getting the fattest type, which accounts for ambiguity in 72-point revelations such as this:
Pregnant Women Can Fly, FAA Says
(Move over Dumbo, says I)
My own employer imposes a 63-character count, allowing no more than three characters short of fill, on stories that stand alone. And in my earlier days at The New York Times, we had single-column, multiple deck heads that could not have word echoes (saying the same word twice in the whole headline), which sent everyone scrambling for a thesaurus full of three-letter verbs.
So I know, after four decades at this, that headline writing is more an art than a skill, and that the myriad rules of different news media must leave the audience scratching its collective head, so to speak, at what we must mean when we leave out words of clarity for the sake of brevity and design.
But I sometimes wonder why headlines have to be so fuzzy on web news portals, where the imperatives are more flexible and, one would hope, there is room to be more precise. MSN, the Microsoft news portal, draws from many other media for its news package. As a guitar player and longtime fan of Carlos Santana, I had to stop for a second look at the headline that told me "Mets Reach Deal to Acquire Santana." Of course if you allow that headlines are supposed to be devices that hook the reader and get him or her to read the story beneath them, the MSN head (via Fox Television) did the job.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Brighten Your Mood

Remember mood rings? Back when I had more hair and less tummy, they were the thing to have to show you were in a mellow mood (blue). The setting of the ring worked on the principle that activates liquid crystals in TV display panels. If the stone is black, you're stressed. It's basically a thermotropic reaction that makes changes in the liquid crystal molecules in relation to the temperature nearest the stone--that of your finger, for example. So if your fingers get cold, it can seem you're in a foul mood even when you're happy.
One little factoid you can use as a conversation-stopper next time there's a party is that your typical body surface temperature (as opposed to your body temperature) is about 82 degrees Farenheit or 28 degrees Celsius. So if your body surface is in that range, the mood ring stone would be green. The happier and warmer you are, the more the mood stone tends to dark blue.
Another quick and colorful way of defining your state of mind is in an even older gimmick called the color quiz, which is a way of measuring your anxiety or mellowed-out-ness by your color preferences. It's no less silly than phrenology or necromancy, I guess. Actually, since today has not been a particularly good day as I near the end of a not particularly good week, the response on my instant mood assessment through the color quiz was not a surprise. Here's what the colors I picked say about me:
Your Existing Situation
Volatile and outgoing. Needs to feel that events are developing along desired lines, otherwise irritation can lead to changeability or superficial activities.
Your Stress Sources
Resilience and tenacity have become weakened. Feels overtaxed, worn out, and getting nowhere, but continues to stand his ground. He feels this adverse situation as an actual tangible pressure which is intolerable to him and from which he wants to escape, but he feels unable to make the necessary decision.
Your Restrained Characteristics
Insists that his goals and realistic and sticks obstinately to them, even though circumstances are forcing him to compromise. Very exacting in the standards he applies to his choice of a partner.
Your Desired Objective
Longs for tenderness and for a sensitivity of feeling into which he can blend. Responsive to anything esthetic and tasteful.
Your Actual Problem
Tensions and stresses induced by trying to cope with conditions which are really beyond his capabilities or reserves of strength have led to considerable anxiety, and a sense of personal (but admitted) inadequacy. He seeks to escape into a more peaceful and problem-free situation, in which he will no longer have to assert himself or contend with so much pressure.
Your Actual Problem #2
Needs to achieve a stable and peaceful condition, enabling him to free himself of the worry that he may be prevented from achieving all the things he wants.

Doesn't that sound familiar? I guess it's another way of saying I'll be glad when the weekend rolls around, so I can relax and recharge.
You can take the test here:\

And check the interactive mood ring here:

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Frog Prince

It's not easy to explain how memories are made. Certainly we don't remember everything that has ever happened to us or passed before our eyes or between our ears. You know what it's like to bump into someone whom you know you know, but you can't put a name to the face. "I'll never forget whatshername" is a common affliction, and it doesn't mean the forgetful person is being thoughtless. It's just that we are human, and memories get overwritten with other experiences and, darn it, we forget.
I find, though, as the years advance, that it is possible to keep the archives limber and responsive, and often that is done by getting new things to remember, which then link to older memories and so on back deep into the vault. It may be a reason why, as the year begins, I smile. I have new things worth remembering. So, naturally, I want to reinforce those good things and keep them coming. Meanwhile, perhaps by comparison or just because of random synapse zapping, I dredge up a forgotten happy moment from an otherwise not-so-happy situation and that reinforces the new happy memory.
Happiness abounds, in other words. I think love has something to do with it. Loving and being loved. It's a happy thought, isn't it.
Don't forget.